Issue Date: August 8, 2011
From The Lab to Capitol Hill
Jasmine H. Dimitriou knew that her life was about to change when, in September 2010, she moved from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Washington, D.C., trading in her lab coat and safety glasses for a business suit and a BlackBerry.
Later this month, Dimitriou and two other chemists, Dale L. Orth and Brittany C. Westlake, will wrap up a yearlong experience working on Capitol Hill as American Chemical Society public policy fellows. The insights they’ve gained, the work they’ve accomplished, and the scientific expertise they’ll leave behind are testaments to ACS’s commitment to bridging science and policy.
ACS has been sponsoring public policy fellows since the 1970s. “We’re bringing into Washington people with a solid science background and a real interest in public policy,” says Caroline Trupp Gil, who manages the program. “These fellows can bring their diverse backgrounds and training into the public policy arena.”
Each year, ACS selects two congressional fellows and one science policy fellow, who are supported by stipends comparable to the salaries of full-time staff. Congressional fellows provide policymakers with information on science-related issues. They also educate scientists on how government works and science policy is made. Science policy fellows work in the ACS Office of Public Affairs to help policymakers better understand the role of science in public policy. In addition, science policy fellows work to inform and involve ACS members in the public policy process.
The ACS fellowships are among the programs associated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s broader Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program. AAAS provides training for all the fellows, organizes activities throughout the year, and maintains an alumni network. Former ACS public policy fellows have gone on to work in Congress, in government agencies, and at nonprofit organizations, covering issues as diverse as federal funding for scientific research, science education, and health policy.
Dimitriou learned about the ACS fellowship program in 2008 through a friend who had done a similar fellowship with a different scientific organization. At the time, Dimitriou was nearing completion of her Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and pondering what steps to take next in her career. “I always knew that I was never going to be an academic,” she says.
When she learned about the opportunity to work on the Hill as a fellow, something just clicked. “I loved selling science to people,” she says. “I loved telling people why they should care.”
As a congressional fellow in the office of Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Dimitriou has learned how to communicate science even more effectively. For example, she researches topics such as climate change and nuclear safety and whittles the information down into a one-page memo for the senator. “The senator needs to be able to look at it, read it, and all of a sudden become an expert in it while still thinking about 20 other things,” she says. “You need to be concise, to the point, and something extremely complex needs to be broken down enough that it can be easily understood.”
Dimitriou says that her science background allows her to look at things with a critical eye. “I think it helps me be a better staffer for Sen. Durbin because I can listen to what people are saying and know what questions to ask,” she says.
As a midcareer professional, Orth had a different rationale for becoming a fellow. “I encourage faculty all the time to apply for sabbaticals and to use sabbaticals to do new things, and I realized that I hadn’t ever taken a sabbatical,” says Orth, who is chair of the Western State College of Colorado department of natural and environmental sciences. “I wanted to know more about how policy works, and I was looking for something to push myself outside my comfort zone.”
Orth has spent the past year in the office of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), working on legislation to improve science, technology, engineering, and math education. He acknowledges that the work he’s done may not come to fruition for years, but he says he’s proud to have contributed to laying the groundwork. “It’s sort of like in the lab,” he says. “You work and you work and some weeks you look back and you go, ‘Wow, a whole lot happened.’ But a whole lot happened because of what you did before that week.”
His experiences on the Hill will help him in his role as both a teacher and an administrator. “On the teaching side, I’ll have another set of examples to use in class,” he says. “On the administrative side, I know a lot more now about the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and programs in the Department of Education. I’ll be able to share that information with my faculty and encourage them to apply for grants.”
Orth says he also understands the importance of speaking up for science. “Anybody I talk to now, I can help them understand how useful it is to write a letter, and when you’re in Washington, D.C., to visit with the staff of your representative and your senators, because that input makes a difference.”
Like Dimitriou, Westlake was at a crossroads as she neared completion of her Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She debated whether to go into industry or academia, but neither seemed like the right fit for her. “There are a lot of really good people doing research, and there are a lot of really good people teaching, but I felt like there was a disconnect between funding for science and the society’s appreciation for science,” she says.
She learned about the ACS fellowship program through a former public policy fellow who gave a talk at UNC. The talk resonated with Westlake, and she knew that she had found her niche. To gain some experience, she took a science policy class through UNC’s public policy program and joined her ACS local section’s government affairs committee.
As a science policy fellow in the ACS Office of Public Affairs, Westlake’s responsibilities have varied from helping research and write policy statements, to attending congressional hearings on Capitol Hill, to helping plan outreach events like the Science & the Congress Project. “Learning about policy has been invaluable,” she says. “I’ll always be a scientist, but I’m learning how to look at the science from a policy angle.”
Fellows can be newly minted Ph.D.s, like Westlake and Dimitriou, or experienced professionals, like Orth. Each group brings “different talents and insights and perspectives to the fellowship,” says Trupp Gil.
The fellowships are competitive, she notes. “We’re looking for people who have demonstrated some kind of interest in the intersection between science and policy.”
Prior experience working in public policy is helpful but not a requirement, she adds. What’s more important is that applicants demonstrate strong communication skills. For example, an applicant who has done community outreach or become involved in a local section’s government affairs committee will stand out.
Fellows are expected to hit the ground running. “Capitol Hill is an intense environment,” says Trupp Gil. “There are long working hours, and you’re going to be asked to do a lot of different activities. There’s very little administrative support. And you’re going to have to be able to work fast and with minimal guidance. You have to earn your respect.”
But the fellows all say that the challenge has been life changing and absolutely worth it. Orth is returning to his faculty position at Western State College with an expanded worldview. Westlake has renewed her fellowship for a second year with the intention of staying in public policy. Likewise, Dimitriou hopes to continue working on the Hill but would like to eventually find a position doing public policy at a government agency or at a nonprofit like ACS. “This is what I love doing,” she says. “I feel like I’m making a difference.”
For more information on the ACS public policy fellowship program, visit www.acs.org/policyfellow.
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